December 26, 2005

Courses to take

When you go to Queen's you have to take some courses. Well, some of them will be compulsory so that your program there vaguely resembles the Warwick. Here is how my schedule looked:

Fall semester:
Introduction to Kant
Philosophy of Mind (compulsory)
Philosophy of Religion
Philosophy of Language (compulsory)

Winter semester:
Philosophy of Feminism
Existentialism
Contemporary Moral Philosophy (compulsory)
Metaphysics (compulsory)

As you can see, you get a fair bit of leeway. It is the end of the fall semester now so I plan on giving you an extremely exciting review of what happened last semester in class.

Introduction to Kant
If you do this course here, then you don't have to take Kant in third year as part of HMP. This means that you get an extra half–year option to take then, which I thought would be a nice thing to have. In retrospect, I don't know whether it was a good decision. I advise you look at the courses available here and at Queen's (although bear in mind that they change their courses all the time and some of them are only available occasionally). As far as I am aware, the Kant course here hasn't changed in the last ten years and probably wont next year. The guy who teaches it is called Professor Maclachlan, and he is an emeritus professor, which means that he is retired and just teaches this one course. He is very nice and obviously knows an awful lot about Kant. He is willing to help you after class and always answers e–mails. However, his classes are dull. There is no way around this. Classes here are an hour–and–a–half long, and he reads from the Critique of Pure Reason for some of it, and talks about it for the rest. I like him very much, but the course is difficult and the classes are hard work. I despaired over the Critique of Pure Reason – even though the class is only based on a few chapters of it, it is really difficult to read and there are a lot of technical terms that you need to get a grasp of before you can make sense of it all. It was the hardest course I've ever done – although, if you work hard in the term it should be manageable.
The course is examined by two short essays (1500 words), worth 25% each, and a final exam worth 50%. There is a master list of nine exam questions that can come up, of which four will and you need to answer three. This means that you can be fully prepared for the exam. It is a pretty nice way of setting up things, probably because the course is so damn tricky. Seriously, I cannot stress enough how frustrating this course is, despite seeming so straightfoward. The first essay is on the transcendental aesthetic, and the second is on the transcendental deduction. I did my first essay the day before, well aware that I'd left it to the last minute, and I was sure I hadn't done well but managed to get 80%. Hurrah! I think this made me a little over–confident for the second one, which I started about four days before the deadline and I stayed in my room for days and nights on end, despairing. I wrote the worst essay of my life, went to see the Prof on the day it was due, told him I didn't understand a thing, ran away and cried like a little girl, considered dropping out of university, e–mailed him some questions, realised that Kant was a complete jerk and that the original unity of apperception, the synthetic unity of the manifold and the concept of the object in general are ALL THE SAME THING (you bastard, Kant) and patched up a mediocre essay in a few hours and handed it in. The Prof was lovely and didn't knock any marks off for it being late! So if you take this course, you should definitely start your essays early; I'd offer to try and help you when the time comes around, but I've forgotton everything I ever learnt in that course already. The exam questions are more interesting – he spends one class on each one, so if you take good notes for them all the exam should be straightforward. They are focused on specific topics like whether the universe exists, the ontological argument, schematism, apperception, stuff like that, so you can make a neat little argument for each one.
I feel I have ranted here somewhat. In reality, it's probably a good course if you do your reading before class and are interested in Kant. I spoke to some other students in the class (there were only 14 or so of us) and people either loved it or hated it. I feel I should have loved it – some of it was really interesting, and the Professor is good – but I just don't enjoy Kant, and my most vivid memory of the course was getting hideously upset about the second essay, so I'm a little biased. Overall, I'd say it is one of the hardest 3rd year courses, but also one that it is easiest to get an A in because it is so straightforwardly set up (heck, even I got an A) so if you're motivated to work hard at something that is not as immediately engaging as other courses, then this is the course for you! There is not a lot of reading, but what you have to read is essential and tricky so you have to read it a billion times before it makes sense. And while it is by no means an easy A, it is a do–able A if you put the work in throughout the whole term.
Also, I discovered that the guy who teaches the course has a website on which he has put the course outline for this course! You can see it here – link – if you're interested.

Philosophy of Mind
Lydia, if you read this, I hope you understand that I cannot find words to express the complex emotions I feel for this course.
Before you take this course, you should check who teaches it and what the content is. From what I gather, its Warwickian counterpart focuses on theories of mind, with a dash of AI. Things were pretty different here! The lady who teaches it – Nancy Salay – worked on an AI project called Cyc that you can google if you're interested in. The course was renamed Philosophy of Cognitive Science, and a lot of the students were cognitive science ones. We spent a week, maybe two, on the theories of mind, and from then on it was computers galore. We learned about connectionism, physical symbol systems and dynamic systems. It is a discussion based class, and personally I got frustrated at the way the cognitive science students led the discussion away from the philosophical aspects and talked about this lots of the philosophy students didn't know anything about. It was annoying and boring.
Okay, so maybe if I had decided to be interested it would have been better. Maybe I did enjoy some of it. I think it was because I wanted to learn about theories of mind and that was completely skimmed over so we could talk about freakin' computers and I felt intellectually ripped off. Maybe I could have tried harder and visited the Prof in her office hours to talk about the things I was interested in (she would have been more than happy to) but, gah, I really hated the way that this didn't really end up being the course I thought it was. Maybe it'll be different next year; but if it is the same and you have to take it, the best advice I can think of is to try and get interested early on because there will be people who already understand how connectionist systems work and will want to talk about the finer points while you're still trying to figure out what they even are. I guess it will be fun to go back to philosophy society next year and be able to show off about knowing all these fancy things, but I found this course pretty frustrating at the time. Also, the grading system is 10% participation, which I totally hated because the only things I could think of to say were along the lines of 'what does that long word mean?' and 'excuse me, but what?' so I never said much. Otherwise, it is two essays, a presentation, and a final exam. I was so scared before my presentation because the class is full of scary argumentative type, but I did lots of reading then read from a sheet I had prepared and managed to score an 85, ha ha!
Gah, thinking back, this was probably a pretty okay class if I'd tried harder. If the course is the same as last year then I'd advise getting the textbook really early on and reading the relevant chapters early on so that you have some context and preliminary understanding of what the heck is going on with cognitive science these days to put you on par with the cogsci students who already know that stuff. This will mean that the classes will be much more helpful to you! Also, don't be afraid to ask stupid questions. I was, and I wonder now if maybe I wouldn't have got better marks if I had. Lots of people I spoke to about this course came out confused and like 'dude, where's my philosophy?' so my stupid questions would perhaps not have been that stupid.

I just realised I have been typing for twenty minutes about how much I hated my courses, and about how they made me angry and how they made me cry. Time to talk about a class I liked!

Philosophy of Language
Awesome class! The professor, Adele Mercier, is fabulous and if you liked logic you will probably find this course super interesting. Professor Mercier is very outspoken, funny and straightforward (my midterm had "NO!" (exclamation mark included) written over it in parts. She is actually very nice and invites you to her house for revision classes and will stay and talk to you after class and such if you like. The course has loads of reading – all philosophy that I like a lot, like Tarski, Russell, Kripke, Frege, Putnam, Donnellan, etc. The course is a bit difficult but really well taught; the classes are a bit more classroom–style than Warwick and is very neatly divided up so at the end of a class you feel like you learned something. You pretty much start with a naive semantic theory of meaning (that words refer to objects) and work through the problems to get new theories, until you get to today and have a bit of a wonder about where things will go next. The grading is done with a midterm, which you can definitely prepare for well if you take the time for (and Professor Mercier will help you out here if you ask her to), which apparantly people notoriously do badly on, so it will count between 0–30%, and the rest is the final exam, which is a take–home, which is worth 70–100%. She works out how it is to your advantage to weight the marks, and takes that as your mark, which is nice. The take–home sounds easy, but will take a long time. I scheduled two days for it into my exam timetable, but it took twice that. However, it is straightforward, even though it takes a long time to do well. This was certainly my favourite course this semester, so you should definitely do it and love it.

Philosophy of Religion
I have mixed feelings about this course! I really enjoyed some of it, but I still don't know what I learned from it. The first part of it is proofs for the existence of God, which I felt a bit bad about because the exam was on the ontological argument which I feel like I've done about a thousand times now – and after that each lesson seemed to focus on something different. There is a medium amount of reading – lots of short articles – bits of Jewish feminism, Nietzsche, Marx, a buddhist speaker came in one class – but I found that at the end, I still wasn't sure what I thought. I mean, in Kant you want to die for a while, but at the end you'll feel pretty good about having understood what the transcendental aesthetic is, and you will be able to say for sure what Kant's opinion on lots of things are. Similarly, after philosophy of mind, you'll know what a physical symbol system is, and a bit more about how minds (and computers, grrr) might work. And in philosophy of language, you'll know what Frege's theory is, and what is wrong with it, and you'll be able to put it into context with the wider problem of What Is Meaning. But with this course, you talk about a few issues, and you'll be able to say what Marx thinks about religion in general, but not feel like you actually got anywhere. That said, the things you do talk about are interesting, and the assessment is based on two short writing assignments (1000 words each), a midterm, and a final essay, so its fairly nicely spread out. Also, the Professor is nice and makes things clear, so that helps too. She teaches Philosophy of Feminism too, which I'm taking next semester and I'm pretty excited about taking that course.

I'm totally looking forward to next semester now – existentialism has the potential for awesomeness, and feminism is something I know nothing about but am interested to learn more about! Contemporary Moral Philosophy is less exciting for me because I am not so keen on moral philosophy AT ALL but I am determined to not use that as an excuse to not do my work. Metaphysics is a directed study course, which is pretty exciting. I have to read Language, Truth and Logic (by Ayer) over the holiday and then have one–on–one tutorials with a professor instead of regular classes. I am rather apprehensive about this because it means that if I do not do my work for a class, it will be incredibly obvious. However, it is also an awesome opportunity to do some serious philosophy that I can't imagine getting anywhere else, so I'm actually super motivated to work for this class.

Gosh, I'm so excited for all my classes next semester. I will make a similar post in a few months about how these ones went!


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